The Sword and the Shaving Brush
Towards a Biblical understanding of fashion
by Timothy Bartel
Part IV – Relativism, Modesty, Evangelism
It is here that contemporary Christians bring a unique and needed element into the cultural climate, for we ask that clothes be not just practical, but also moral. The moral issue of modesty, then, becomes the second major problem that Christians face in their considerations of fashion. Such an issue is complicated further by the divorce between practical and aesthetic concerns within the discussion. Both the exposed midriff of the sports-bra and the scooping neckline of the prom dress cause the modest dismay, but for opposite reasons. We worry about the minimalism of the running outfit because it largely ignores the factor of physical attractiveness. We worry about the prom dress because it ignores everything else. This concern for modesty in clothing seems to be a unique contribution of conservative religion to the discussion of fashion; it is, consequently, indispensable. Unfortunately, this concern has acted the tyrant, and dispensed with all other concerns. Modesty, for many Christians, has become the only consideration in matters of dress. Fashion is purchased, worn, and discussed with primary regard for modesty of cut or logo.
A dissatisfaction with modesty as the only concern has led some Christians to reintroduce a bastardized aesthetic to the fashion they design, and the problem of Christian branding is born. The genuine desire of the contemporary Christian to evangelize is, for better or worse, applied to the Christian’s fashion concerns. A crew neck t-shirt is both modest and practical, but a crew neck t-shirt branded with a Bible verse or religious slogan is modest, practical, and evangelical. It seems to present Christ to the world through the medium of fashion. While sometimes both commendable and appropriate, this mentality does not actually “preach with fashion.” What is does is reinterpret fashion as a frame for verbal or visual communication and aesthetic activity, rather than seeing fashion as the actual medium of communication and aesthetic activity. Such a reinterpretation threatens the very existence of fashion as an art form. It sacrifices clothing on the altar of evangelism.
Yet there is a more learned version of this folly. The politically sensitive, culturally aware Christian has learned to criticize the Christian T-shirt maker for their sophomoric attempts at local relevance. The gospel, they say, is obviously more complicated than a slogan, and must be preached through relationship. Clothes are used, then, to identify with and relate to the targeted cultural group. The fashion of that group is reinterpreted not as a frame for the gospel text, but as a required uniform for cultural access. Discussions of fashion, then, focus not so much on aesthetics or morality, but on a new type of practicality: what is the most efficient fashion for clearing the cultural way for my gospel presentation? How can my clothing be most culturally appropriate for my mission field?
While this mentality will surely take into account fashion aesthetics and morality of the targeted audience, it will take little account of the actual aesthetics and morality of fashion in general. The serious consideration of fashion as art is dispensed with as trivial, and fashion as art is only studied as in interesting, sometimes troublesome phenomenon of a less enlightened culture than one’s own. We who have no philosophy of fashion condescend to another’s philosophy in order to present our religion. Though more thoughtful than Christian-branding, this approach still seems quite mercenary, and pushes fashion further and further from legitimacy as an art form. Fashion finally becomes another casualty of a powerful and pervasive religious exploitation of art in the name of evangelism.